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Better, faster, stronger – ‘Upgrade’

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What would you do if you woke up one day and were … better? Stronger, faster, smarter – every aspect of who you are improved. And what if that improvement wasn’t just a one-time bump, but a continuous evolution? If that one day became a week became a month became a year? And what if the cost was your humanity?

That’s the central event of Blake Crouch’s latest sci-fi thriller “Upgrade” (Ballantine, $28). Set in a world where well-meaning science nearly destroyed the world by trying to save it, it’s precisely the sort of book we’ve come to expect from Crouch – an action-packed thriller built on a thought-provoking science fictional foundation.

Extrapolating the potential ramifications of scientific discovery and then exploring the consequences is one of the blueprints to create exceptional sci-fi. Of course, one has to have the architecturally authorial talents to follow such intricate plans if one is to craft true excellence. Suffice it to say, Crouch has once again understood the assignment.

In a near-future marked by catastrophe, Logan Ramsey works as an operative for a law enforcement division aimed at tracking down and neutralizing rogue geneticists. See, the world very nearly came to an end because of gene manipulation – billions died and billions more almost met the same fate – and so forces were mobilized in an effort to ensure that such a thing would never happen again. And Logan has his own very specific reasons for engaging in this sort of work.

And yet, science marches on. The genetic genie is out of the bottle.

When Logan and his team raid a suspected gene manipulator’s lair, they are caught in what turns out to be a trap. Logan bears the full brunt of an explosion, a genetic bomb whose malicious intent is difficult to discern. He is held in quarantine for weeks, even after tests conclude that he is unharmed.

Unharmed, but not unchanged.

Soon, Logan begins to notice changes in himself. He’s stronger and faster. His intellectual capabilities are increasing. He requires less sleep and less sustenance. However, others have noticed as well – the people he works for are very interested in seeing how this develops. It isn’t long before Logan decides that he will have to solve this mystery for himself, even if there are plenty of folks out there – on all sides – who are much more interested in their own agendas.

And all the while, his capabilities continue to grow. But who did this to him? And why? And what are they planning next?

I’ll confess to a bit of intentional vagueness with regard to the plot of “Upgrade.” Like Crouch’s other work, there are more than a few narrative turns that are best left unspoiled. Believe me, you’re better off not knowing – that’ll make the moments of discovery that much more fun.

No one digs into the dark side of sci-fi quite like Crouch does. He has a real knack for starting from a scientific reality and spinning it forward into something altogether fantastical. One of the joys of his work is the fact that it all feels so goddamned plausible; sure, it’s a few steps removed from the reality of the present, but you’re given a real sense of the path that was taken to get to this not-so-far-flung future.

It's fascinating to consider that we’re only in the embryonic stages of genetic manipulation. The science is still so raw and new, with few practitioners really out there on the bleeding edge (well, as far as we know, anyway). But here’s the thing – scientific progress is slow right up until it isn’t. It only takes one generational genius to make that quantum leap and redefine the way we understand the world … and there’s no way of knowing what that redefinition will ultimately entail.

Of course, Crouch has other writerly gifts as well. In particular, he has this incredible ability to put the reader inside the heads of his characters. Reading “Upgrade” is a thrill ride because we are almost literally riding along – we’re passengers inside Logan’s head as he moves through a world that is steadily slowing as his own changes are accelerating; his motivations are evolving along with the rest of him, for better and for worse.

And again – leaving aside all that other (excellent) stuff, the truth is that “Upgrade” is just a flat-out barnburner of a story. Idea-driven sci-fi is awesome, but it can get a little navel-gazey; Crouch is great at surrounding the thoughtfulness with well-crafted thrills and loads of action.

If an author keeps delivering on a consistent basis, they are eventually going to become appointment reading. Blake Crouch is there, a writer whose work I eagerly anticipate as soon as I learn that it’s coming. His work has always been strong, but he’s blasted three home runs in a row in a genre where any author is lucky to hit one – “Dark Matter,” “Recursion” and now “Upgrade.” He’s as good at what he does as any writer currently out there.

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 September 2022 07:06

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